Julia Spencer-Fleming has never disappointed me. Six Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries have passed from her agile, witty and plot-rich mind into our eager, hooked ones; and I wouldn't have missed a single one for the world.
Of course, Spencer-Fleming stranded her inimitable Episcopalian rector and police chief in a devastating quandary at the end of book five, ALL MORTAL FLESH. Although I saw various ways to continue their story, I wondered whether the tragic twist was too much for love to overcome.
So, I waited on pins and needles for this newest offering, I SHALL NOT WANT. In it, Spencer-Fleming lays out with confidence the aftermath, the repercussions, of the previous book's tragedy. Guilt. Withdrawal. Frustration. These haunt our protagonists. But since they both continue to live in Millers Kill, unpracticed face-to-face moments can't be avoided. How do Russ and Clare cope? Can the love settled in them when they first met, the love that would not fall away during other testings, revive and strengthen now? These are the vital questions...and they are fearlessly answered.
I SHALL NOT WANT begins with a bang as the reader follows rookie female officer Hadley Knox and the rest of the Millers Kill police force as they desperately attempt to bring a hostage standoff to a bloodless end...but cannot. Then, the story rolls back about six months to trace the causes of and players in that fatal shootout. These include an accident with an overturned van from which injured undocumented foreign agricultural workers flee, a series of execution-style murders, an identity switch, an influx of big city gang members, millions of dollars in illegal pot, and a family of redneck farmers.
But back to Hadley Knox for a second. She is a substantial and pleasing additional to the Miller's Kill cast of characters. As a single mother struggling to make ends meet, her doubts about being able to cut it as the first female sworn officer on Russ' team seem very genuine. Since the youngest member of the force, Kevin Flynn, thinks she is the most beautiful woman around, she, amusingly, also has her hands full with him.
Indeed, no Clare/Russ book would be whole without Spencer-Fleming's gentle sense of humor. I SHALL NOT WANT includes several lovely laugh-out-loud bits. The most hilarious follows a scene of danger and uproar. I won't spoil it, but it is a wonderful tension-breaker.
Does I SHALL NOT WANT adequately come to terms with the stark situation in which ALL MORTAL FLESH left Russ and Clare? I think so, although arguably it skittered over some of the hard work. However, Spencer-Fleming knows that as long as we live, there is no ending, happy or otherwise. We keep moving from one feeling and circumstance to another. So, if Russ and Clare don't hyper-analyze their every doubt, isn't that a touch of realism rather than a lack of penetrating drama? Deputy Chief Lyle MacAuley tells Clare at one point, " 'We don't have near enough time on this earth, and what we do have, we fritter away acting like damn fools.' " Yup. Clare and Russ can't afford to stay stuck forever in any one moment, not matter how fateful. They can't let any one thing define them. They are the sum of their lives. Lives which keep moving along, whether they like it or not.
Kevin takes his chance to giddily espouse his feelings for Hadley: "That was love....love, love, love." Spencer-Fleming makes sure love has its day in the sun in I SHALL NOT WANT, but again, I won't spoil whether Clare and Russ get the same opportunity as Kevin. Whatever happens, love -- in all its manifestations, including lovemaking -- can't make happy endings, only happiness along the way. In this truth lies the bittersweet residue of the novel's poignant fade out.
Now, here's hoping for a seventh addition to this adroit and distinguished mystery series!
* from publisher's comments on the back cover.